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Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

By December 25, 2015No Comments

Volatiar's BastardsThrough a strange set of circumstances involving Chicken John Rinaldi – and are there ever any other sorts of circumstances involving Chicken John? – I have tracked down the 1992 volume “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by John Saul, a book sadly both out of print and not available in ebook form.

It’s terrific reading so far:  intriguingly, Saul’s thesis about the rise of “Reason” and the technocrats feels both incredibly fresh and germane and completely out of touch with modern reality.  The internet would become a fact of life for elite America just five years after Voltaire’s Bastards was published, and 10 years after that it would be a nearly ubiquitous fact of life.  And we’re still 10 years past that, well into the world of Uber and Facebook.

This is a series of events which Saul’s thesis has everything to say about, but on which it is utterly silent owing to its year of publication.  Its silence on these critical issues is deeply frustrating:  to my mind Saul’s thesis is enhanced by the development of online technology, but the examples he actually uses are dated and almost quaint.  This matters in a way that it does not in a book like Walden or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because Voltaire’s Bastards is speaking to a very specific set of historical contingencies rather than to the timeless nature of the human self.

Still, I find myself taking notes on nearly every page – which is the sign of a great book and terrible reading habits.  Here are a few things that struck me about education in the technocratic age:

 “In a sense the training in all these schools is designed to develop not a talent for solving problems but a method for recognizing the solutions which will satisfy the system” (page 21)

 “The amoral quality of our leadership is essential to understanding the nature of our times. The vocabularies of Locke and Voltaire and Jefferson have led us to judge men upon a simple scale of good and evil. A man who uses power to do evil is in theory judged to have been conscious of his acts and to be as fit for punishment as the perpetrator of premeditated murder. But the technocrat is not trained on that level. He understands events within the logic of the system. The greatest good is the greatest logic or the greatest appearance of efficiency or responsibility for he greatest possible part of the structure. He is therefore unpremeditated when he does good or evil. On a bad day he is the perfect manslaughterer, on a good day the perfect unintentional saint. What’s more, the people who succeed at this kind of training are those whom it suits best. They therefore reinforce this amoral quality. Dans le royaume des coulisses, le castre est roi.

  “This form of education is not only applied to the training of business and government leaders. In fact, it is now central to almost every profession.”  (pages 22-23)

 “Education is the one place where lofty ideals and misty mythology cannot avoid meeting the realities of crude self-interest.” ( page 26)


Now, you tell me:  has the passage of time made this any less true than it was in 1992?  Or has it become even more true?